School 21, A ‘Conversation’ With Peter Hyman.

Late last year I had a long conversation with Peter Hyman in which we looked at areas of agreement in our education philosophies and areas where we disagree. This conversation took place within the walls of Windsor Castle, a most un-revolutionary backdrop, steeped in history, a place beautifully unencumbered by 21st Century thinking, unless you count the aeroplanes preparing to land at Heathrow that must disturb a good night’s sleep for various Royals, their servants and staff. Peter and I agree on many things but we also have some significant disagreements too.

In today’s Observer Peter has an article, It Is Time for a Real Revolution in Britain’s Schools, in which he sets out many of our agreements but also hints at those significant disagreements too. The article begins at an event which I attended in the House of Lords, a pupil gave a beautifully crafted speech, the need for eloquence is something about which Peter and I wholeheartedly agree. Peter was formally a speech writer for Tony Blair and shares with me a passion for the Art of Rhetoric, though, perhaps due to Blairite revisionism, he calls it ‘Oracy’. I contributed to the English Speaking Union and School 21’s book called ‘Speaking Frankly’ (Available for free: online edition, here) In the book I make my case, in a piece called ‘the Age of Rhetoric’, for argument, debate, logic and eloquence but also for the teaching of judiciously selected texts and a well thought through curriculum. It is on these points that Peter and I have real disagreements.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with Peter when he says:

An academic education (the head) starts with the basics of literacy and numeracy, then builds out to a deep love of words and facility with the English language. It then develops a depth of knowledge of key concepts and ways of thinking in areas such as science, maths, history and creative arts. This knowledge should be empowering knowledge – knowledge that draws on “the best that has been thought and said” from the past, as the cultural critic Matthew Arnold advocated, but importantly is shaped and applied to the needs of the present and future.

I’m not sure that he means the same thing as me when he writes this. To me this means emphasising subject based teaching, teaching knowledge explicitly so that children remember it and, importantly, it also involves the need for reflection, absorption and silence. Peter prefers a project-based approach to finding the ‘best that has been thought and said’, the problem I have with this is that it doesn’t tend to find the best. Let children free too early on the task of academic knowledge acquisition and they are more likely to find stuff that isn’t that good and also quickly pass over stuff which is difficult to understand. This stuff needs to be taught in a systematic way, it needs to unfold in a carefully constructed narrative, so that children learn in real depth. For this to occur, it needs to be chosen by teachers, presented in a specific order, and referred back to often. It should not be left up to the child to construct, not if you want them to truly learn.

I also worry about Peter’s idea of a ‘noisy’ classroom. If he means a classroom in which children talk and are questioned as well as questioning, where the ‘noise’ is purposeful, then great. If this is just a rhetorical flourish to get a reaction, that this is not the default position, and that if he saw children working silently and diligently on their own in a classroom he wouldn’t worry about it, then fine,  because sometimes we really do need to work alone and quietly, if we want to reach insight and understanding.

As a drama teacher, I love group work, yet I can also see its many problems and weaknesses. It is not a great way to learn stuff. Certainly not for every child in a group. It also suffers as an approach because a teacher can’t keep track of the ‘learning’ that is going on in a group and often quite fundamental concepts are distorted through a ‘Chinese whisper’ approach in which a nugget of knowledge is reshaped into a prize piece of nonsense.

However, we do agree that there should be debate, dialogue and conversation, these things have an important role to play. I worry that Peter has a slightly Utopian idea that his approach will make the world a better place, I’m not sure that we ought to try to make children more ethical and liberal, but we should certainly offer up the great issues of our time as well as the past so that they might be more informed but free to make their own decisions and, yes, mistakes as well as successes.

The great liberal arts tradition is, of course, an education that provides children with the means to learn valuable knowledge, to value discussion and thought, and appreciate the need for beauty and eloquence in their communications with the outside world.

It is great that we have a system in which a school like ‘Michaela’ and a school like Peter’s ‘School 21’ can coexist. I wonder if there is room for a school that seeks to put both approaches together and whether that would satisfy Peter’s desire for innovation?

5 thoughts on “School 21, A ‘Conversation’ With Peter Hyman.

  1. Hi Martin,

    As you might imagine, I tend to agree with Peter here – but my question is how, apart from teaching in a structure that matches the test, can you evidence your statement that:
    “Let children free too early on the task of academic knowledge acquisition and they are more likely to find stuff that isn’t that good and also quickly pass over stuff which is difficult to understand. This stuff needs to be taught in a systematic way, it needs to unfold in a carefully constructed narrative, so that children learn in real depth. For this to occur, it needs to be chosen by teachers, presented in a specific order, and referred back to often. It should not be left up to the child to construct, not if you want them to truly learn.”

    We know that you believe that. We know that other wonderful teachers (like you) have taught with these assumptions. However, it seems that you are missing the uncomfortable fact that his school, and thousands of others (worldwide – if not in the UK) use Project Based Learning (and other approaches that do not forefront ‘Knowledge) with huge success in terms of exam results and broader outcomes (see Expeditionary Learning Schools and Big Picture, for eg).

    So, isn’t this just a difference of politics/pedagogy/values – rather than any objective truth about ‘what works’? Which would be fine, BTW IMHO. Your preference for a hierarchical approach to teaching knowledge, according to a traditional narrative has problems (which I know you are aware of) but I would not suggest it is fundamentally wrong. I don’t think it should dominate an education system and I am glad that schools using PBL (for eg) make informed judgements about where best to use a ‘knowledge’ approach, to support the children they have now – rather than teach to the test or satisfy a prejudice of politics or class.

    Suggesting that Peter is misguided in using a proven and effective models, based on your preferences for education, seems a little unfair on the evidence of the hard work he, and the team at School21 (and at other places, such as XPSchool) have put in to make a shift in the way we school children in the UK.

    They should be applauded, loud and long, for being brave and making their values a successful reality. Even if you have a different point of view.


  2. I suppose I start with the Willingham idea that ‘factual knowledge must precede skill’, this would suggest that by having a base in knowledge helps. This then leads to how much knowledge is required and how much must that knowledge be secure and understood before one is able to use it effectively? All these things are context specific, of course. As a drama teacher I used project based learning for practical activities – making plays through improvisation etc. – this had a real strength because the ends were never worried about from the start. i.e. the task was to make a ‘good’ play that lasted 20/30 minutes or so. We didn’t work from a theme(s) but when one began to emerge we would investigate/research it. This took time and it helped that I, as the teacher, had a breadth of knowledge to ‘guide’ students towards. When I was teaching them about, say, ‘Brecht’ or some other texts I would teach them content first and not use project based learning for them to find out the basics. Later on as a tool of sharing of knowledge I would use projects. This is the difference between projects to find out specific stuff and projects as a way of expressing understanding of stuff that has been learnt. I, however, wouldn’t necessarily call this a project I could also call it an essay. The important point is enquiry is a perfectly acceptable form of acquiring knowledge if you don’t mind what that knowledge is. If you have an interest in imparting certain knowledge then the best way is to teach it to ensure it is understood. A guide on the side who tells a pupil what to study and what it means is doing this, even in the context of ‘project’ work, in other words they are a disguised ‘sage on the stage’. Maybe how it is done is vital, and this might need to be unpicked.

    As for further evidence, the EEF is not very conclusive, but PBL shows it might be problematic for FSM children:

    PISA also found problems with it:

    Though, again, as this article states that ‘ quality of teaching’ matters and that further research is needed. Interestingly it suggests that ‘ students who most often experienced project-based learning were low-performing to begin with…’ this might be an issue, but as OECD put it:

    “Perhaps surprisingly, in no education system do students who reported that they are frequently exposed to enquiry based instruction (when they are encouraged to experiment and engage in hands-on activities) score higher in science. After accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile, in 56 countries and economies, greater exposure to enquiry-based instruction is associated with lower scores in science.”

    I was often taught at school through project based learning and where I have huge gaps in my knowledge I ‘correlate’ this in my head, maybe unfairly.

    Kirschner, Sweller and Clark suggest that:

    “…minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than in- structional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning pro- cess. The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide “internal” guidance…”

    You can access their research here:

    Maybe this is enough, for now.

    I sometimes wonder after research is exchanged, figures are examined, and all we might be left with is ‘if teachers do what ever they do ‘well” then perhaps all education research is problematic, and so the only things we have at our disposal are our values and opinions.

    I am sure School 21 will do very well, I love what it is doing and how it is doing it. For me the dialogic and oracy approaches they use are vital and very exciting indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for replying Martin : )

      OK – we agree that what School21 is doing is to be lauded. Yay!

      We agree that evidence of educational research is often problematic – especially where the only measure is one type of examination data. Hoozah!!

      I am not sure we agree on what PBL is (as very few people of our age in the UK would have been taught using it – and there are few teachers in the UK who are adept in applying the rigour in modern PBL – see

      It is NOT topic / thematic teaching – or group work work.
      It is a far more structured and considered pedagogy than the loose experiences you describe.

      I guess my challenge to you was – if what you saw at School21 was good – the learning outcomes are good – and you think Peter is working hard to bring the best for the kids at the school – why devalue it because the assumptions underpinning the education are different to yours?

      Why does this matter? Because it is unhealthy to the improvement of what we call ‘schooling’, to restrict the debate by dismissing the new by asserting solutions from the past. (BTW – I am ashamed to say that I’ve done this too, in the past – and should be pulled up on it if I do it in the future!)

      I know teaching is not a science – but… I think this Feynman quote is useful here – if you replace the word scientist with teacher, and the word science with education. The problem is that teachers do not think like the scientist he describes – they should. We should look at our existing education solutions as the best we have at the moment – not fix them in time and within ‘evidence of what works’. Sorry for the extended quote – but it deserves the space (IMHO).

      The full quote can be found here

      “The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he (sic) is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.

      We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.

      It is our responsibility to leave the people of the future a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant as we are. If we suppress all discussion, all criticism, proclaiming “This is the answer, my friends; man is saved!” we will doom humanity for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.

      It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.”


  3. I think educators often seem to forget that parents tend to see their children to school in order to be taught, not to be set free on the internet to google things and then talk about it. I find it quite galling, this cavalier attitude to children’s education, as if children are toys to be played with and indoctrinated. I want my teenage sons to learn how to write, write, add up, appreciate and be knowledgeable about culture. I don’t want them to be doing aimless projects and fighting some political agenda when they’re so young!


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